ESSENTIAL READING FOR MOUNTAIN GUIDES

???????????????????????????????The first time I heard of Martin Moran was in the Pindar valley.

Couple of villagers mentioned his name.

I started frequenting Munsyari.

I heard his name mentioned there too.

Later when the first Indian ascent of Changuch happened, Martin’s name was firm reference point for his expedition had recorded the peak’s first ascent. That in turn, was the fallout of a climbing trip to Nanda Devi East, which he chose to abort and redirect towards Changuch. Before Nanda Devi East, Martin had been up Baljuri and Panwali Dwar.

These are not just engaging mountains.

They fall at a junction in geography and spirituality that is important to Garhwal and Kumaon, particularly the latter. Knowing who Martin is and what his body of work is, appeared essential. When the chance to review his book emerged, I was delighted.

`Higher Ground – A Mountain Guide’s Life’ was a mixed package.

Its strength is that it gives much insight into the subtitle. It is required reading for anyone aspiring to be a mountain guide. If you are imagining a book with details on a plethora of knots and anchor systems – a sort of technical manual; you are mistaken. Martin’s book is his life in guiding, shared. It does not unduly play up the usual lot of technical information, which the term `mountain guide’ evokes. Instead, it provides a taste of how the guide sets up business, works with clients, how much the envelope is pushed for achievement on trips and most important – how even a guide of considerable experience like Martin, won’t hesitate to turn back if conditions on a mountain are bad. If I may say so, there is much relevance in India to reading this book because in the Indian rat race, admiration for being superhuman and the compulsion to be superhuman are both high. They are among sentiments shaping our perception of climbing. Ahead of being comfortable with climbing, it is unfortunately seen as achievement. Martin’s book, although unashamedly nurtured on a diet of climbing, does not hesitate to talk of mistakes, accidents, long days that he and clients got away with and mountains that seemed wiser to behold from far.

High altitude isn’t everything. There is much to keep you busy at the lower heights. Martin’s book introduced me to peak bagging in Scotland; of clients returning to accomplish the ascent of a cherished number of these peaks. Equally, the book also lays bare how the mountains of Scotland and the Alps of Europe can be laboratory for eventual success in the Himalaya. You don’t find this said as such; you glean it. Nearly three quarters of the book obsesses with specific routes and climbs in Europe, something that can tire a reader unfamiliar with these environs. But in the end, you see the organic link, the making of competence. You can definitely do the same in the Himalaya (as many from Nepal and India’s mountain states do) but the point is – there is no substitute to being out and climbing. In the outdoors, you are only as good as how frequently you are out. Indeed Martin’s book is a freight train of personal climbs and climbs done with clients. So much so, it is sparse on his personal life.

From a reader’s perspective, the book is a challenge given three quarters of the book dwelling on the Scottish highlands and the European Alps (with some mention of Norway in between) and the difference in character between narratives from there and the Himalaya. It is a tough contrast to bridge smoothly. Europe’s mountains, heavily climbed and well known, bristle with technical information. Despite best effort to tell a story, accounts of climbing feel dry. I felt the book’s first three quarters was a stiff narrative that could have been made gentler for folks like me. I started enjoying the book from the last quarter. That’s when Martin reaches the Himalaya. With its unique matrix of mountain dimension, altitude, spirituality and people amid it all, narratives from the Himalaya are by nature different from stories from Europe. Couldn’t Martin have kept the style of narration uniform – either the texture of Scotland and Alps all the way or the texture of the Himalaya all the way (as I would prefer)? Or, mixing up the chapters in a non linear fashion? I wonder. All I will say is – I laboured through the first three quarters of the book and enjoyed the last quarter.

The book’s other weakness is exactly what it delivers as its strength. If you prefer the non commercial context as ideal window to the mountains, then this may not be your cup of tea. It shows in the rather limited ruminations on life and life’s questions that dot the narrative. This book is about work.

It is worth reading, especially if you are mountain guide or aspiring to be one.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly longer version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal Volume 70)

A BOOK ON MOUNTAINEERING’S HOLY GRAIL

???????????????????????????????Alan Hinkes’ book, ` 8000 Metres – Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains,’ should make a fine addition to the library.

Hinkes is the first British mountaineer to have climbed all the fourteen 8000m-peaks.

On the Internet, his achievement is sometimes qualified as “ disputed,’’ the ascent of Cho Oyu being case in point. Hinkes mentions reaching the mountain’s vast summit and walking around to ensure that there isn’t any higher to go. All this is in semi white out condition with reduced visibility. Views of other major peaks, useful to establish proof of summit, remain elusive. Hinkes is also alone at this stage of the climb. “ I did not bother to take any photos. There was nothing to see and I was more concerned with finding my way back before I became trapped in a full whiteout or deadly snowstorm,’’ he writes in his book.

Among the fourteen 8000m-peaks, Cho Oyu is often described as the easiest. Hinkes’ chapter on Cho Oyu begins thus: Categorizing any 8000m peak as `easy’ or referring to an `ordinary’ or ` normal’ route to the summit, is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing easy or normal about any 8000m mountain. Each of the fourteen giants represents a serious undertaking with different characteristics, dangers, difficulties and local weather patterns, and none should be underestimated.

In the eyes of the sport’s high priests, the situation on Cho Oyu may have inspired lack of precision in summit claimed. But it takes nothing away from Hinkes’ book, which strikes a fine balance between coffee table book and account of life in mountaineering, especially that recap of fourteen 8000m-peaks climbed over eighteen years, entailing twenty seven attempts in all. Towards the end of the book, Hinkes says that the fourteen 8000m-peaks are dangerous, that he climbed them for himself and not for money and therefore even guiding on those peaks for money isn’t worth risking his life again. The only mountains from the fourteen that he may consider climbing again are Everest (to which he returned) and Cho Oyu.

The book’s biggest strength is simplicity in the story telling. It is unpretentious. This is complemented by large and beautiful photographs backed by an uncluttered layout. The images give you a genuine sense of place without complicated camera work to distract from what is being shown. Hinkes’ photography is crisp and clean. The book has a nice architecture in terms of written content. Having devoted the introductory chapter to describing his affection for adventure and the evolution of his career in climbing, Hinkes keeps the accounts of his climbs straightforward and bereft of searching philosophy. He speaks matter of fact, mostly devoid of the dramatic, adding a touch of drama only where it seems relevant. Each story of climbing an 8000m-peak is followed by a smaller chapter on an interesting aside. The latter ranges from the photo of his daughter that he carried to mountain summits (it also gave him something to look forward to after the summit and kept him focused on descending safely), to profiles of Jerzy Kukuczka, Kurt Diemberger and Reinhold Messner, the correct clothing for high altitude mountaineering, his food habits on expeditions, ` the death zone’ as extreme high altitude is popularly called and dealing with death in a dangerous sport.

We live in an age, where mountaineering narratives are many. The media gaze has spared no landscape. Some would say – as early victim of media in adventure, the snowy, windswept heights of our planet suffer from a fatigued idiom of expression. If despite that, we still indulge media, then it must be conceded – content matters now more than ever before. Details like perspective, craft and lightness of handling, previously overlooked, have emerged differentiator for our tired senses. This book, at once serious for the subject it handles and enjoyably light in treatment, lives up to that more comfortable aesthetic.

For the average Indian like me, it is an expensive book.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly edited version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal, Volume 69)

OF WAR AND WARRIORS

???????????????????????????????On the jacket of Wing Commander K.K. Nair’s book: By Sweat and Sword – Trade, Diplomacy and War in Kerala through the Ages, are observations pivotal to his work.

Colonial documents record that war was the natural state of Kerala. The region’s political climate was characterized by a variety of foreign and local powers fighting each other for economic and military ascendancy. Yet despite centuries of foreign contact and conflict, Kerala continued to thrive and retain its independence. The frontiers of Kerala were never redrawn. It did not suffer massive social or cultural dislocations. No foreign order or influence, especially those inimical to the populace, could be imposed until the traditional order was overturned. The influences Kerala absorbed were of its own choosing. The book “ hypothesizes that this remarkable achievement was a direct consequence of Kerala’s unique military, diplomatic, social and economic culture.’’

The book is an investigation of a state of war (internal and external), what that dynamic meant for defending Kerala and what it meant to external powers trying to subjugate the region or gain a toehold. Old Kerala transacted its business amidst a diet of military readiness. Actor across ages in this was a clan – the Nairs. The book isn’t community or clan history. It is what its title says, except, you can’t talk of war in Kerala without also talking about the Nairs. K.K. Nair’s book takes the reader from a likely foreign origin for the clan in tribes linked to the Scythians, their subsequent migration to India, movement within India along the south west coast to Malabar, their role in the wars of South India, wars within Kerala and wars with foreign powers trying to colonize Kerala.

The Scythian angle is founded on a couple of arguments. According to the author, there is no mention of the Nairs in the writings of the Sangam Age and earlier. The first mention in India is in the inscriptions of the Scythian king Nahapana who reigned from AD 78-125. His domain extended beyond the Gulf of Cambay, along the Gujarat and Konkan coast. The inscription talks of assisting the Nairs of Malabar. On the other hand, earlier in Europe, the Greek historian Herodotus (BC 484-425) noted that the Scythians had joined forces with neighbouring tribes, including one Slavic tribe called the Neuri, to stem the attack on Scythia by Darius of Persia. This happened around 500BC. Later as the restlessness of Mongolia and Turkestan took hold, the Scythians were further displaced. They began moving into Indo-Persian lands around 200BC. By this time the Neuri and other Scythian tribes no longer find mention around the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Megasthenes (BC 350-290) in his description of India, positions the like sounding Nareae tribe to the north of the Aravali Mountain. Putting two and two together, the author suggests a story of migration, initially towards India and later, within India.

Unlike North India, the South from ancient times was wrapped up in mutual warfare. The best known of this was the tripartite battles involving the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras. Kerala was predominantly Chera territory. It was hill country; it was also numerically disadvantaged. Invading armies were typically bigger. This was the environment into which the warrior-Nairs arrived. A clan of dedicated warriors to oversee security and their lifestyle revolving around martial culture influenced Kerala. K.K. Nair observes, “ Kerala, unlike most of India, was not divided into Hindu villages but was divided into gradations of military divisions with every division and sub division being designated by the allotted quota of Nairs it was required to bring into the battle field.’’

A fallout of this arrangement was that rulers didn’t maintain large standing armies but they could marshal an adequately large army at short notice. It is possible to trace local customs, building architecture and lifestyle – including the culture of martial arts – to such a militarily styled society. The Nairs’ fighting style associated in martial history with the `Berserk or Mad Warrior’ style (wherein they forgo use of armour), would have got progressively challenged as technology gained currency with opponents. But on many occasions, it also stunned foes. The book explores the warrior mindset, including suicidal contests like `Mamankam.’ Needless to say, some fighting or the other seems to have been always on in old Kerala. Accounts are commensurately bloody. K.K. Nair’s book helped me put in perspective some of the idiosyncrasies of Kerala. History provides a window to understand people. Nair’s book served such purpose.

The book brings us all the way from ancient battles to Kerala’s colonial wars with the Portuguese and the Dutch, Tipu Sultan’s invasion and eventually the onset of British supremacy. We get an idea of the strategies and tactics of invader and defender. We see how frustrated some invaders may have been, weighing their incessant harassment on land and sea against the viability of their spice trade. For lay readers (like me) the book’s central character and its agent of continuity will be the Nair soldier. He is there in every conflict, be it in Malabar, Cochin or Travancore. However, despite being Kerala’s constant warrior through the ages, the Nair goes tad unexplained beyond his image as set in historical accounts of battle. But then, the book’s main intent isn’t investigation of clan or community. It is instead a study of trade, diplomacy and war in Kerala provoked by the curious case of a state that held its shape through the years despite active engagement with the outside world.

To sum up: By Sweat and Sword is an interesting book about a violent past.

INTERVIEW WITH WING COMMANDER NAIR

The author of the book, Wing Commander K.K. Nair.

The author of the book, Wing Commander K.K. Nair.

Wing Commander K.K. Nair is a serving Indian Air Force (IAF) officer. He is Joint Director, Operations (Space), at Air Headquarters, New Delhi. He replied by email to questions about the book:

Can you describe the circumstances that made you write this book? What attracted you to the subject?

I was coming from Geneva to New Delhi in 2007, when my French co-passenger Valerie, a part time scholar and full time hippie – as she put it, gave me a running commentary on Kerala in ancient times and the Nairs. My interest in the subject was sufficiently kindled. I became curious to know more. Thereafter, when I mentioned the subject to Gen Satish Nambiar, then Director of the United Services Institute (USI), he strongly encouraged me to do an in-depth research. It was the active support and encouragement from Gen Nambiar, Gen PK Singh, Squadron Leader RTS Chinna of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research and my colleagues in the military services that enabled me to sustain my attraction for the subject.

How did you go about collecting the material for this book? Would you like to share any interesting moments therein?

Most of my material for research came from the National Archives, the Travancore, Cochin state records, from the USI as also from the University library, Trivandrum and the late Travancore Maharajah’s private collection. Some material came from the Dutch records for which I am particularly indebted to Mr Tristan Mostert, Curator of the Rijksumuseum, Amsterdam. Material on the ‘Mad-Warrior’ style of Nair warfare came from Prof Michael P. Speidel of the University of Hawaii. Overall, a lot of effort went into collecting material for the book.

With regard to interesting moments, one of these was when during a meeting with the late Maharajah of Travancore, he read the draft account of the battle between Tipu’s troops and the Travancore Nair regiment on the Travancore Lines. He got so animated reading the account that he rushed in to get an old `ola’ (palm leaf document) showing grant of lands etc to the Garrison Commander Kalikutty Nair.

The next equally interesting moment was at Trivandrum’s University Library. There was some kind of a strike on and the library was forced to shut. I was returning disappointed when I saw some students striding up to me calling out, “Pattalam Saar, Major Saab” etc. They got the library reopened for me stating that strikes don’t apply to OUR military. I was truly overwhelmed.

You have attributed a Scythian link to the Nairs. How conclusive is that?

I have avoided being judgmental throughout the script. I leave the conclusions to the reader.

Having written this book, can you briefly explain why a state of war became Kerala’s dominant predicament?

An abundance of resources always brings in problems of management. These snowball into rivalries, conflicts and war. Kerala had enough agricultural produce, spices etc to feed itself and the world at large. Little wonder then that its shores attracted the Chinese, Arabs and Europeans. This ability to produce resources, trade resources and sustain prosperity across the ages was possible because a fine balance existed amongst the various communities in Kerala. Thus, though war was daily affair, trade and agriculture never suffered.

Is war and warrior a chicken and egg situation capable of contributing to a state of war?

Yes. Your observation is very apt. It certainly contributes.

(The author of this review, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

SHIPTON & TILMAN

`Shipton & Tilman,' the book by Jim Perrin.

`Shipton & Tilman,’ the book by Jim Perrin.

The day I went to interview Jim Perrin, I forgot to bring my camera.

Unusual for mid-February, it had rained. It felt like early September, the relatively weak, tapering part of monsoon with grey sky and reluctant sun. In his room at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Jim sat facing the rain tinged light of the window. Beyond it was the road leading to the Gateway of India. The light filtering in graced the room, built big to colonial dimension and still preserved in the old style.

Jim rested his back on one armrest and slung his legs over the other. He recalled his life writing about climbers. In that borderland of writing and climbing, one of the things he ended up doing was writing obituaries. He wrote many.

Then, there are those three books, conceived long ago as a trilogy, each representing an influential person or phase in British climbing.

John Menlove Edwards the subject of the first book in the series had been a gifted rock climber and writer. Don Whillans, the topic of the second book in the trilogy, personified the gate crashing outsider. Until then, mountaineering had been the preserve of an elite, class conscious imagination. Whillans gate crashed the party but the very force that made him would also be his undoing. Jim, a rock climber in his younger days, knew Whillans. The overcast sky dispatched a pool of diffused light to where Jim sat. I tried my best to focus on Jim talking but my mind couldn’t help regretting the photograph of writer in that room, missed.

Few hours after our chat, Jim received the Kekoo Naoroji Award from the Himalayan Club, for his third book – the last of the trilogy – on the remarkable partnership between Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman. In India, the duo are best remembered as explorers of the Himalaya, two mountaineers who worked together to fashion an approach to the iconic 7816m-high Nanda Devi. That peak is the heart beat of Kumaon. In August 1936, Tilman and Noel Odell would become the first party to summit the peak. Although he partnered Tilman in finding a route to Nanda Devi (it sits well guarded by a wall of other high mountains), Shipton had opted for Everest, when this eventually successful expedition came by. He never reached Nanda Devi’s summit. But Shipton-Tilman was more than Nanda Devi.

Mountaineering is a harsh sport. Sure there is what nature throws at you. But there is also the mix of personal ambition and high adventure through natural hazards faced, which forces an evaluation of self and others that is heartless and very often, the stuff of anger, regret and acrimony. Egos clash. Teams break up. Many times, friendship and break-up have happened all in the space of one expedition. Shipton-Tilman was different. Their friendship endured and even after the two men – each quite different from the other in terms of character and yet somewhere similar – stopped climbing together, they maintained their mutual respect. For many Indian mountaineers in their middle age now or past it, Shipton-Tilman is the ideal. Further their legacy is in a class of its own. The books they wrote together and separately are considered classics of outdoor writing.

I read my first Tilman in my forties much after the world of climbing had been invaded by modern media leading us to believe that nobody told climbing’s story as well as we did. That’s the mark of our times. Reading Tilman was an invitation to correct such arrogance. His writing engaged and the imagination in it captivated for the questions it posed and the style it adopted so many years ago. It was humbling.

Jim Perrin (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jim Perrin (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Core to the world of mountaineering and aside from their lasting partnership, Shipton-Tilman are remembered for a couple of other reasons. First, they are among the last classical explorers of the Himalaya and the exploration of a route to Nanda Devi was one fantastic story. Second, while the mountaineering style between the great wars of the twentieth century endorsed both the ideals of empire and climbing in military style-expeditions, this twosome ventured forth in lean teams, interacted with the local people and lived off the land. Today we call such lean climbing – alpine style ascents. The British mountaineering establishment of the days when Shipton-Tilman climbed couldn’t gauge the potential impact of their style, till fault and criticism progressively caught up with the practice of giant expeditions. As empire faded, so did the reverence for old siege and assault styles. But Shipton-Tilman lived on as `alpine.’ From a writer’s perspective, these two men pose a unique challenge. Despite books they wrote and books about them, there is little providing insight into their formative years. In their accounts, both men don’t indulge this angle. In reality, Shipton’s childhood and youth are relevant to understand him as is Tilman’s military experience during World War I. One took his chances with women; the other was called misogynist. Jim tries to explain the two characters well, with detailed research and at times, educated guess based on personal knowledge. For instance – he knew Tilman.

After approximately a third of the book read and the rest skimmed through to confirm its flavour, Jim Perrin’s book came across as a study. It is not the typical climbing story. The narrative of the Shipton-Tilman climbs is already out there. Jim’s is a writer’s journey into their separate stories, their separate characters, their association as a team and what they possibly meant in their writings (Jim puts it in perspective). It is also therefore a book based on many other books. So, more than climbing, it is literature and scholarship, a valuable insight into the greatest partnership in mountaineering. According to Jim, the book had been thirty years in the making. Asked why he restricted himself to writing on British climbers, he said that he preferred to write on subjects he knew. To me, that’s one more reason as to why Jim’s book matters.

When we finished chatting and it was time for lunch, I recommended a well known upmarket restaurant in Colaba. He agreed to it but then asked, “ Can I get aloo paratha?’’ So we ended up in a decidedly less expensive place, filled with chatter, tea and Indian food. Days later as I started reading Jim’s book, I noticed how it began with deep appreciation for the aloo paratha and tea he had enjoyed, at a dhaba near Gaumukh.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

BEYOND GANESHA (UPDATE)

Kilian at work on the route next to Samsara (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian at work on the route next to Samsara (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On February 25, after the three part series `Beyond Ganesha’ was published on this blog, Kilian Fischhuber responded to a mail I had sent earlier.

I had asked him whether he had a rough idea of the grades for the two new routes he had created. He said, “ I have tried both routes. The left one seems possible but I think we need Adam Ondra for it…. The other route, next to Samsara, I was close to doing it but in the end I didn’t. I am not absolutely sure about the grade. This comes usually during the process of trying and is normally decided after the climb has been done. But I think it will be around 8c+.”

The “left’’ route Kilian cites, is the route shown in the photo featuring Kilian that you find in part three of the series.

As Kilian’s mail shows, for now Ganesha remains the hardest sport route in India. Initial estimates of Ganesha’s grade too had been around 8c+. It was fixed at 8b+ after being fully climbed.

The potential for routes harder than Ganesha seems to be there in Badami.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

IN MUSSOORIE, THOUGHT RESTORED

Parker Hall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)Fans of the Indiana Jones series, will remember the scene from the first film when cinema’s favourite archaeologist faces a huge scimitar-wielding opponent. For a minute, we think it is time to bid goodbye to the adventurer played by Harrison Ford. Then, slowly recovering from the sight of scimitar swishing about, he pulls out his gun and fires. One bullet fells the imagery of the terrible scimitar. As simple as that; balloon pricked.

Something similar happened last November, during the last session of the 2013 Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival when the documentary film `Kukuczka’ by Jerzy Porebski was screened. In the film (a tribute to the legendary Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka), veteran mountaineer Kurt Diemberger comments on the current craze for speed ascents on formidable mountains. Gracefully aged by time, Diemberger has a serene, saintly gaze. He gently laughs and compares these swift climbs to the difference between sex and loving a person, understanding a person. Sometimes in the world of adrenalin soaked-climbing, you need a wake-up call as effective as Indiana Jones’s bullet. This seemed just that. The analogy was perfect; the delivery in Diemberger’s affable way, equally so. For me, it was one of the truly memorable moments of the last edition of the festival. You come to events like this, to rediscover the value of thought. Restoring thought in outdoor sport is particularly difficult as the world of marketing and media have squeezed contemplation out leaving us with action junkies in close-up.

William Dalrymple speaking at the Mussoorie festival (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

William Dalrymple speaking at the Mussoorie festival (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On the other hand as author David Roberts wonderfully pointed out (he was quoting Benvenuto Cellini) in an old essay on mountaineers’ biographies, there is value in writing memoirs when you are past forty and not before. As you age you learn to see what happened from a distance, not with your nose to the rock. Yet thanks to competition, marketing and media, our world has been losing that distance, that perspective. As ornaments for adventurer grow, the outdoors fades to being means for a world resonating us. It is like you swallowed K2, vacuumed the Sahara or gulped down the Pacific to become something bigger than they all – which you do in the human world. You tower above others while whatever you conquered exists timeless out there. It is both a crisis in human imagination and a crisis in sponsorship models for without claim by superlative (in world running out of superlatives) and consequent interest shown by media, money shuns adventure. I found Diemberger’s comparison, spot on. It is easier to manufacture reasons for attention by marketing’s logic, than to know the mountains or lose yourself to what you like and where you had been. That’s the thing – are you willing to lose yourself, trade rank among humans for mere place in everything? I found myself laughing hearing Diemberger’s observation. I also found myself saying: thank you!

Ayush Yonjan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ayush Yonjan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival is both about writing / arts and about mountains / the outdoors. It is special for me. First, it gets me back to the hills, reunites me with others similarly cast. Second, as a writers’ festival, it returns the intellect to a domain rapidly trading intellect for the glamour and decisiveness of action. I write as outsider. Despite much time spent climbing, I wasn’t good climber. Still, if average climber may speak up – I was never fascinated by just action. Save perhaps in the thoughtless depths of tackling a climbing route, which is too much an instance of focused, intense existence to be generalized as life. Firmly into middle age, I also realized that my being has a spiritual side, which needs attention as much as my body. A larger landscape now interests me. To feel the larger world, you stay open to a variety of stimuli ranging from music to photography, to painting, writing, science, history, geography – for all this exists out there. A festival like the one at Mussoorie, I felt, approached the outdoors so. Notwithstanding shortfalls, it strives for more dimensions than one.

The first time I was here in 2010, I walked to the assigned venue, past walls hosting photographs of mountains by Coni Horler, a participating photographer. Evenings, music took over – that time, it was artistes passing through town and, I suspect, some of the staff of Woodstock school who performed. The school is the festival’s immediate ecosystem.

Romulus Whitaker (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Romulus Whitaker (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2013 – the festival trifle bigger and shifted wholly to the school’s Parker Hall – I walked to the venue through an exhibition of Thangka paintings by the Nepali artiste Ayush Yonjan. Evenings brought on stage, a band from the hill town of Shillong in North East India. They sang songs from the 1950s and 1960s.

In between we had a host of speakers, among them – Krzysztof Wielicki, William Dalrymple, Romulus Whitaker, Janaki Lenin, John Gans, Mark Vermeal, Simon Beames, Mamang Dai, E. Theophilus, Omair Ahmed, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Allan Sealy, Sejal Worah, Daniele Nardi, D.R. Purohit, Jeph Mathias, Kaaren Mathias, Tara Douglas, Maria Cofey, Peter Smetacek, Neela Venkatraman, Freddie Wilkinson and Deborah Baker. The topics spanned history to wildlife, experiential education, poetry, mountains, mountaineering, photography, river journeys and butterflies.

The band from Shillong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The band from Shillong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As before, the festival was anchored by author, Stephen Alter and his team, including those from the school’s Hanifl Centre for Outdoor and Environmental Study. It was supported by the Winterline Foundation, begun by Woodstock alumni.

No doubt, all that engaged. But In 2013, my take away was Diemberger’s comment on film. I guess my personal set of circumstances, my private funk in climbing was waiting for it. Like a bullet to invincible images on stained glass, the comment demolished the intervening interpretation of climbing by distinction and let nature in. I imagined speed climber distracted by the changed ambiance, sitting down to admire the world from a mountain slope. Something has snapped in him. He thinks – how about a tent, a warm cup of tea, some love and affection, the slow life?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

 

A BOOK ON CAVING

???????????????????????????????I quote two paragraphs from pages 83 and 84 of Brian D. Kharpran Daly’s book, ` Caves for the Uninitated’:

“ You know, Marisa, it is a real pleasure to impart knowledge to someone who is eager and has a thirst to learn. I will be only too happy to teach you all I know, step by step.’’

“ Just be good and disciplined kids and follow your heart in what you want to do in life. I can only help in igniting the spark in your heart.’’

Brian’s book on caves is structured as a series of chats with a group of youngsters after their visit to a cave in Meghalaya, the Indian state best associated with caving.

To me, the above mentioned paragraphs sum up my own impression of Brian.

There are very few like him in the Indian outdoors. In these days characterized by the specific highlighted to overshadow the whole, it is very difficult to find a mind given to appreciating the whole. I add – in our times of greatness while still young, knowing the whole is a time consuming process. Caving for Brian, could have easily reduced to technical skills, high adventure and apartness by what all that means – much like advertisements of adventure these days. That’s all we care for; life in single dimension, climber on vertical face.

Brian’s story is different.

When I met him in Shillong some years ago, Brian came across like an oddity in the regular outdoor spectrum. Already feted for his contribution to caving in India, he was still explorer at heart, someone who saw caving as the sum total of an experience spanning skills to science to the sheer grandeur of nature. Plus, he was articulate, down to earth and hardly like so many others adventuring for distinction. Not to mention – he made good wine. I came off happy to have met somebody who was multidimensional, someone who represented the whole as opposed to specific highlighted at the expense of the whole. There was an unmistakable maturity in the meet-up. Maybe – and here I am guessing – that’s a product of being pioneer. For Brian’s entry into caving not only signalled a leap in the scale of cave exploration in Meghalaya, caving also struggled to coexist with rising environmental threat to Meghalaya’s caves, courtesy mining. With that threat hanging as Damocles Sword over the very medium he fancied, Brian was likely forced to learn the subject from all angles. If so, his mind was perfect for the job. As the book shows, Brian’s awareness of a cave straddles the many aspects that make a cave what it is. I should also mention that I know of few persons in the Indian outdoors, who pursued their case (in Brain’s instance, protection of Meghalaya’s caves) all the way to the Supreme Court, even if it was to eventually lose the battle (please see the August 2013 post in Outrigger: The Caves of Meghalaya).

Brian D. Kharpran Daly  (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Brian D. Kharpran Daly (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Given this backdrop, I think Brian was cut out to write this book. A lay reader wanting to know more about caving couldn’t have asked for a better author in terms of experience in the subject, love for the subject and willingness to be evangelist for it. Brian leads the reader on through stalagmites, stalactites and siphons to gear used for caving and on to simple dos and don’ts for safe cave exploration. Strictly from the perspective of book review, it is a slightly inconsistent book beginning as easy, informal narrative but becoming trifle textbook like over the last quarter. It could have been better edited. However for all its minor shortcomings, Brian has successfully presented us with caves in general and Meghalaya’s caves in particular, all the way from the natural chemistry forming them to the myths and legends man wrapped them in. It is a wonderful effort in a country yet to adequately notice the speleology in its midst.

Our knowledge of the outdoors, the Indian outdoors and adventures therein, will be incomplete without this book on caves.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)